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Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw needs to avoid fatigue factor

Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw throws against the Angels during the first inning on Tuesday.

Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw throws against the Angels during the first inning on Tuesday.

(Jae C. Hong / AP)

It was 91 steamy degrees when the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw threw his first curveball against the Angels on Tuesday night, and he spent the next couple of hours fighting through a pitching puddle.

He sweated. His beard dripped. His hair sprayed. His gray jersey grew dark stains. Even his giant black glove grew wet.

He gave up a home run to the Angels’ first batter, Kole Calhoun, causing him to wince and mumble, “What the ... ?”

Seven innings later, he stepped off the mound to wipe sweat from his face, he was called for a balk, and he muttered some more before eventually ending his outing with a strikeout of Calhoun with the bases loaded.

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It was vintage Kershaw, seven innings, four hits, one earned run, eight strikeouts, 106 pitches in a 6-4 Dodgers victory. It was the kind of Kershaw the Dodgers desperately need in October, with one problem.

This wasn’t October. These aren’t the playoffs. Worse yet, this was not even the middle of a real playoff race, as the Dodgers are firmly in control in the National League West, nine games ahead of the second-place San Francisco Giants in the loss column with 24 games remaining.

This game was little more than a playoff preliminary, yet Kershaw was allowed to battle through those 106 especially difficult pitches as if it were Game 7, even though he could have left after the sixth inning with a 6-1 lead and having thrown only 82 pitches.

This wasn’t vintage Kershaw, it was scary Kershaw, six days after throwing a career-high 132 pitches, in a streak of five consecutive starts with at least 100 pitches, amid a streak of 16 starts in which he has thrown less than 100 pitches only once.

This is a Kershaw who has already thrown 221 pitches more than last season and counting. And, yeah, after what happened during the last two Octobers, the Dodgers should be counting.

Nobody around the club will publicly acknowledge that fatigue was a factor in Kershaw’s consecutive postseason meltdowns against the St. Louis Cardinals — they wouldn’t dare say that about their toughest player — but clearly he was wiped out. Plainly, his workload leading up to those two failed series played a role in his inability to survive them. Without question, the Dodgers need to monitor that this season to avoid a third collapse.

“We’re gonna take care of him, for sure,” Manager Don Matttingly said before the game.

Well, they pretty much need to start doing that now. Save the league’s best bullets for later. Save the league’s brashest competitor from himself.

Even though Kershaw is benefiting from a six-man rotation, more care is needed. Now that the Giants have pretty much disappeared, the Dodgers need to save Kershaw for the real heat.

They don’t need to do it for Matt Harvey reasons, but Matt Carpenter reasons. This is not about protecting the health of his arm, it’s about protecting the health of a Dodgers lead in the middle innings on a autumn weeknight in the Midwest.

Kershaw wants to pitch. He loves the work. When recently asked if he was thinking about his chances to be the first Dodger with 300 strikeouts since Sandy Koufax in 1966, he said, “Not really. Leading the league in outs would be good , though.’'

Leading the league in outs means leading the league in innings pitched, which Kershaw does with 208 innings, which also leads the majors. But no, that is not good.

“He can be difficult when it comes to those kinds of things,” Mattingly said. “Clayton is a go-forward guy. He’s always going forward. He’s always working hard, he’s prepared to pitch ... it’s hard to get him out of there.”

Is there a “but” somewhere in here? Good.

“But obviously we have to make the decisions we feel like are best for him,” Mattingly said. “We’ll keep an eye on him for sure.”

Nobody can blame Mattingly for leaving Kershaw in for those 132 pitches in his previous start, considering he needed every one of them to beat the Giants and essentially clinch the division a month early. But moving forward, history should warn the Dodgers that if they choose to work him fulltime until the end of the season, they will do at great risk.

Two seasons ago, he threw a career-high 236 innings. Last season, after sitting out six weeks early because of a back injury, he pitched at a career-high pace, finishing with 198 1/3 innings. In both cases, he finished the regular season hard, then came up lame in October, raising questions about whether it prevented him from finding that second gear when he needed it most.

Two seasons ago, two days after the team had clinched on Sept. 19, Kershaw was throwing 99 pitches in a victory against the San Diego Padres. Six days later, he threw 82 pitches against the Colorado Rockies. Six days after that, he was pitching against the Atlanta Braves in a division series. The Dodgers made few allowances for the clinching, gave him little extra rest, and when he was asked to pitch on an unfamiliar three days rest in that division series, his arm seeminly never recovered, and he was rocked twice by the Cardinals in the NL Championship Series.

Last season, on Sept. 24, he threw 117 pitches in the West-clinching win against the Giants. It was his third consecutive start with at least 105 pitches. Nine days later, he blew up after 90 pitches in giving up the eight runs in the seventh inning in a 10-9 loss to the Cardinals. Four days later, on an unfamiliar three days rest again, he failed shortly after throwing his 90th pitch again, giving up three runs in the seventh inning in a 3-2, series-losing defeat against the Cardinals.

These series defeats have so stifled Kershaw’s legacy that he has mentioned them in award acceptance speeches. He wants to rewrite that history as quickly as possible. The Dodgers need to slow him down so that can happen.


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